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Oil, a Grey Bag and Hope

The menorahs are all waxy and oily, and we are hopefully basking in the after-Hanukkah glow, the taste of sufganiyot and latkes are still fresh in our tastebuds and selves.

I have been musing about the story of Hanukkah for several years now… eight to be exact. It was eight years ago, on ZOS Hanukkah, that the phone call came.

It had been a very hard year. My precious first born son- and third child died on Erev Rosh Hashanah  one year after battling and battling brain cancer. If it had not been my brand new remarriage — six months at the time of my son’s passing, I honestly do not know how I would have been able to go on. Pain that is indescribable filled all of  my depressed exhausted days and terror filled sleepless nights. I truly was existing on love and support from my new husband, wonderful remaining 10 children and new stepchildren and family. As days blended one into the other, life did go on. One of my stepsons was to get married on the last night of Hanukkah. A reprieve from the gloom, and it seemed to help. A pretty gown, makeup, music and joy temporarily lessened at least for that night the chronic pain.

The last day of Hanukkah dawned grey, rainy and cold. I was driving between work appointments — yes, with a hands-free Bluetooth and talking to my oldest daughter who could not attend the wedding the night before. Early into the conversation my daughter excused herself to take a call from her husband. Minutes later she called back and frantically told me that her two year old had been hit by a car and she was on her way to the hospital. “Pray” she said, “please pray.”

“I can do this” I kept repeating to myself. After all, the family had just spent a year coordinating hospital visitation, meals, and support. Surely, we could do this. Armed with purpose I set out to meet my spouse to go to the hospital. “Let me let my daughter know I am coming. Let me let her know I will take care of everything; food, the other children, anything that the family needs” Pulling into the parking lot I called. My daughter answered the phone with “It’s over. She died”

Cacophonic screaming filled my ears and would not stop. It was me screaming……all I knew at that moment is that I had to do everything and anything to help my child not experience the pain I was in. Like a morbid mantra reverberating in my brain, over and over, I stated and thought of what I could and would do to shield my child from extensive pain and horror.

No amount of mommy love can take away the pain of losing a child. And that amount of mommy love will fuel the mommy to continue trying — multiple times a day, every single day.

Six weeks after the baby’s death, my daughter and I agreed to meet for a day of walking the mall in an attempt to try normalcy.

As I drove to our meeting, I began to panic. “What will we talk about? What should I say? What should I NOT say?”

The first hour of our meeting resembled an awkward first date. Perusing the stores, looking and touching anything, we exchanged conversation that sounded like this “ Oh, look at this wonderful serving piece. Do you like it?” “Oh yes. I love it. Can I get it for you ? Maybe you will use it this Shabbos at the table and your husband and children will like it?” Serving pieces, towels, toys and clothes all followed the same conversational mantra. Both of us were desperate to connect, yet the task was daunting and connection was elusive.

We sat to have coffee and stared at each other. It was as if we were two almost strangers, picking at straws, finding the proverbial needle in the haystack to attempt conversation. The tears came for both of us, and we were able to talk, to share and to grieve together.

There is something cathartic grieving with another, especially someone you are so close to and someone that can understand, and feel your pain. It was getting late, and we needed to go. On our way out, we passed one more store. Beautiful bags were on display. Bags for everyday; chic bags for work and holding computers. “I’m buying this for you” my daughter emphatically stated. Over my protests my daughter said, “Please, I need  to get this for you. I need to do something for you.” It was at that moment that I knew she would heal, persevere and recover.  Echoing the great Dr. Victor Frankel and Logo-Therapy, the ability to give and receive love during any challenge is the key to not only surviving but also thriving.

I have often thought — and have now penned — my thoughts on Hanukkah and the family tragedy that we endured. Hanukkah for all of our parties, Menorah parades, food, family and good cheer was actually a very painful time for our nation. There was death and destruction. The army of 12,000 Maccabees valiantly fought an army of 50,000 Greeks. The fighting went on for years and the Maccabees wore down the Greek armies. Matisyahu died in the beginning, Judah died in one of the great battles, Elazar, Johanan and Yonatan were also killed. The only surviving brother was Shimon. (Jewish History.org)  Hanukkah is also famous for the story of Hannah and her seven sons who were not only killed, but tortured in front of her eyes.

What exactly did we just celebrate then? Hope. We celebrated hope. The little flask of oil that was found-pure and useable among unspeakable tragedy represented the hope that our nation has been clinging to for generations. Hope and a future; one of the central mantras of our people.

I still have the grey bag. I wore it daily until it began to show obvious signs of wear and tear. But I will never get rid of that bag. It sits proudly on my shelf of shiny new useable bags and once a year, I take down the bag and feel the love and understanding of a mother and daughter bound in love, pain and hope. Whether a flask of oil, or a grey bag purchased in waves of grief, we persevere. One at a time, one family, one community and one nation.

About the Author
My name is Dr. Debbie Akerman. I am a social worker with a doctorate in social welfare along with a clinical license in social work. I specialize in addiction and marriage and family therapy. My dissertation centered on the lack of treatment centers for addiction in the orthodox Jewish community. On a personal level I have eleven children and eight step children. I am personally and professionally comfortable with topics of addiction trauma and bereavement. I have taught many classes at the masters a level at several universities and also engage in public speaking and professional panels.
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